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A philosophical look through my planner showed life goes on, even during a pandemic | Helen Ubiñas

Life is lived even in the midst of wars and natural disasters and, these days, a raging pandemic. It’s just sometimes hard to see when you’re in the middle of it.

A daily planner takes on new meaning during the pandemic.
A daily planner takes on new meaning during the pandemic.Read moreHelen Ubiñas

I usually get a planner for the coming year sometime around my birthday in November.

This year, though, I thought: What’s the point?

The world as we knew it stopped cold in March after the COVID-19 outbreak.

Plans, big and small, were long wiped away on the dry-erase calendar that hangs in my kitchen. Though for some inexplicable reason, I left “March” scrawled on top like some Sharpied relic of the Before Times.

And it is, in many ways.

My personal planner, a leather-bound Traveler’s Notebook that is too fancy for me, is no different.

From January to March, it’s chock-full of “this was your life” snapshots of the places I needed to be, the people I needed to see, in real life — you know, our old real lives. In between, there are a handful of photos from memorable days or vacations that I’d print out on a mini black-and-white printer and stick to its pages as a reminder of what all the hard work was for, I guess.

In the days since COVID-19, I’ve thought about retiring the planner and shoving it in a drawer along with other things I used to use on the regular: business cards, my SEPTA Key card, a hairbrush.

But then, somewhere along these long coronavirus months, I found myself starting each week by scrolling through the photos on my phone, printing out the ones that most represented the week before and attaching them to the pages.

A photo of the “You Belong 6 Feet Apart” sign I spotted on my morning walk with my dogs, the stump of a 100-year-old tree that a neighbor had turned into a beautiful carved sculpture, the sink the neighborhood hardware store set up outside so customers could wash their hands, the plywood some of the shops in the main business district put up during the summer’s civil unrest after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on the neck of George Floyd — some spray-painted or stenciled with: “Black Lives Matter!”

I’m procrastinating, I thought; putting off the start of another endless week.

That was before I found myself in one of those “what even is life, anymore?” moods and started flipping through the planner and realized that there, among the photos I haphazardly stuck to the pages, was the answer.

This is life. Not the one I planned, not the one any of us planned, but life.

In the photos of the signs neighbors who couldn’t talk to one another the way they used to now communicated:

Thank you, essential workers.

We’re in this together.

Bye, Don.

In the photos of people I’d gotten to know mostly virtually or through masks — a workable workaround, but one that made me ache for the old days.

It shouldn’t have surprised me, the joy and sorrow. Life goes on even in the midst of wars and natural disasters and, these days, a raging pandemic.

It’s just sometimes hard to see when you’re in the middle of it.

When I flipped through the pages of the last nine months, I was struck by the progression. Early photos before we realized that nope, this wasn’t something that like magic, would “just disappear,” seem almost quaint: Screenshots of cheerful Zoom calls with the nephew and nieces and colleagues I used to see nearly every day; his-and-her selfies of face masks made by friends and then later purchased as impulsively as I used to buy shoes — when I wore real shoes; my niece’s virtual college graduation.

And then, summer kayak trips to Tuscarora Lake past all the Trump flags, and later, a picture of a guy who flashed a white-power sign at a Trump truck rally, in between screenshots of column after column that represented just a snapshot of a relentless news cycle, of our new, unyielding existence: a New Jersey gym that refused to obey the coronavirus shutdown, racial justice protesters being teargassed by police on I-676, the grieving mother who buried a second son to soaring gun violence amid a pandemic that meant that even at his funeral, she had to mourn him from a distance.

More than a quarter of a million Americans dead.

And then in November, the masked celebrations that broke out on the streets when Joe Biden was declared president-elect, followed by photos of this year’s small Thanksgiving turkey-for-two and the Christmas tree put up earlier than, well, planned.

This week, I decided it was time to slip the new 2021 inserts into my leather planner. Not because I think that 2021 will be some magical reset of the life that went off the rails in March. (I wish, but in a country where 74 million Americans are happy to follow a reality-star ringleader into an alternative universe, no one should plan on going back to life as we knew it anytime soon.)

But because, for good and bad, life is meant to be lived.